Sunday, November 28, 2021

Discouragement from Habitual Sin

Do you struggle with discouragement from habitual sin? For many Catholics this is a huge problem. There is a pattern we tend to fall into: we do well for a while, but when faced with temptation we give in and sin. The sin brings apathy, a sense of "Well, I already blew it, what's the use in trying?" So you go into a slump—your prayer life suffers, you keep committing the same sin over again (because you already messed up, so what does it matter?), and you get apathetic. Maybe a week goes by. Maybe a month. You feel like a slob, spiritually and in other respects. Eventually you are so unhappy and angry with your life that you rouse yourself; you say, "I have to get right with God." You go to confession and lay your soul bare before a confessor. He gives you some good advice, you repent tearfully, receive absolution, and go out rejoicing, resolved to do better this time. You are grateful for God's mercy and kindness at giving you another shot and things go well for you spiritually. Things continue this way for a time—maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months—until you get complacent, get tempted, and fall again. Then the cycle repeats. Year after year after year. Maybe decade after decade.

This can be frustrating in the short term, but the long term consequences are more dire. Repetition of this pattern over many years can lead us down a dark path, the steps of which include:

  • Acedia (spiritual sloth): "It's inevitable I'm going to commit serious sin sooner or later so there's no point trying to make spiritual progress."

  • Distraction: Unhealthy focus or preoccupation with just "that one sin" such that you ignore other important aspects of your spiritual life (see USC, "Distraction of That One Sin").

  • Resentment: Simmering bitterness towards God. "It is unfair of God to prohibit something I am unable to restrain myself from doing. It puts me in an impossible position."

  • Blindness: Inability to see the working of grace in ones own life.

  • Dulling of Conscience: Having accepted the inevitability of certain sins, one's conscience dulls to them; we get used to that sin or at least to the idea of living with the sin.

  • More Time Outside of Grace: The lengths of time we perceive ourselves to be in a state of mortal sin grow longer and longer; the times we are disposed to receive Communion grow shorter and fewer, until they are like small islands of grace in a vast sea of sin.

  • Loss of charity: A gradual hardening of heart takes over. We become jaded and angry, impatient with ourselves and others. The very ideas of spiritual progress, grace, etc. seem like jokes.

  • Loss of Hope: "At the rate this is going, It'll be a miracle if I make Purgatory." 

  • Despair: "How can I—or anyone—possibly avoid going to Hell? The vast majority of us are simply doomed." 

  • Loss of Faith: You no longer perceive the issue as your problem, but as a problem with the faith itself. "The Catholic religion doesn't work. It only gives me stress and anxiety. This system simply can't be the truth. I can no longer assent to this."

As we can see, discouragement at habitual sin can create a slow decline that ultimately leads to loss of faith. It is good to recall that Satan is in this for the long haul; while individual sins certainly matter, the devil aiming bigger than that; he is trying to create an overall trajectory in our life that leads us away from God. He is attacking us tactically, while we tend to get bogged down in the bushes, unable to see the forest for the trees.

Do you recognize this pattern in your life? Even if you are not to the point of despair or loss of faith, does any of this sound familiar? It very well may. I've been here for sure. And so have many Catholics, for whom the pattern above is the reality of their spiritual life. Not all will eventually lose faith, of course; people walk spiral down this vortex to varying degrees. Many of us have been (or are on) this path somewhere.

So what's the way out? The real problem is that "Try harder next time" and like advice doesn't seem to help. Most have been struggling every way we know how to free ourselves from habitual sin for years. Some eventually have victory; many don't. Is there a better way?

We ultimately need to reframe how we look at this problem, and it starts with revisiting the idea of "winning" and "losing" against temptation. When we are tempted, we are thrown into a spiritual battle, a battle we can either win or lose. But when do we win or lose—at what point is a particular spiritual conflict won, or conversely, at what point is it lost? Most of us will answer that the battle is won when we pass on without committing the sin, and that it is lost if we commit the sin we are struggling with. How many of us, after fighting with a temptation, fail to persevere and then think, "Well, I lost that battle", or something similar?

While it's true that victory of temptation is a "win", it is not always true that committing the sin is a "loss", at least in a certain sense. What I mean is this: thinking "I lost that battle" implies that the spiritual battle is over once you have committed the sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. What happens after we sin is just as important. The battle isn't just whether you will sin; it is how you will respond to the victory or failure. If you have victory, will you become complacent and idle? If you are defeated, will you become discouraged, fall into a slump, and go down the slope described above? The battle after the sin is pivotal, as it determines whether you will be solidified in a certain spiritual "trajectory."

Therefore, when you commit a habitual sin, rather than thinking, "I've lost again", or "I blew it", or "There's no point in praying or trying now that I'm already in a state of sin", instead think, "The battle is not over. I am moving into a new stage of the battle. I can still win." Even if you have sinned, your prayers still matter. God is still just as invested in helping you. You don't need to throw in the towel. You don't need to beat yourself up; focusing excessively on your own failures is itself a trap of pride. The battle has not ended; I can have victory at any time if I choose God now in this moment. The moment of grace was not at some place in the past when you were struggling between light and darkness; the moment of grace is now; it is always now. All you have to do is strike now and you win. Every time. The victories will be varied and the journey will be bumpy, but you'll get to where you want to go. Where you are heading is more important than whether the road you are on has potholes. It's not so much whether you hit potholes; it's whether the potholes eventually cause you to give up and turn around. 

Maybe this is nothing new. I am certainly not promising any breakthroughs. But I am sharing something that has been extremely helpful to me in my own spiritual life. Realizing that the battle does not end if I sin, that the moment of grace is now, and that as long as I seek God in any given moment I always win have been transformational principles. Perhaps they will be of some help to you as well.

Happy Advent brethren

Related: "Christ Will Give You Victory" (Jan. 2019, USC)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Some Updates

A few months ago I posted an appeal for donations in conjunction with the fourteenth year anniversary of this blog. The purpose of the appeal was to help defray the expenses of updating the woefully dated USC sister site, fund the professional design for some new book projects, and translate my RCIA notes and outlines into Spanish. Unfortunately I did not raise enough to cover all these projects, but enough of you stepped forward that I was able to make some progress. The new Unam Sanctam Catholicam sister site has been constructed, and I am currently migrating all the content over. There is still some design stuff I need to work out, but it feels good to be getting this underway. I especially want to thank one reader who gave an extremely generous donation that covered a big chunk of cost. Deo gratias. 

Anyhow, not much else I wanted to say except that work is going on. I hope to have the new site launched by the time we celebrate this blog's fifteenth anniversary in June of 2022. If you'd still like to contribute, you can use this Paypal link to make a one time donation or set up a recurring donation, which some of you were generous enough to do. Thank you sincerely. It is my hope that once the new site is complete I can turn my attention to working to get the RCIA outlines translated into Spanish, and then Arabic, Lord willing. But for now, one step at a time.

Blessings and grace to you and pray for me, a poor sinner


Sunday, November 14, 2021

We Should Watch for Signs of Christ's Return

It is mid-November, and the Church is contemplating the Last Things. There is a really awful strain of thought out there when it comes to dealing with eschatology and the Second Coming. These are the people who say, "God doesn't want us to think about this. We don't know when it's going to happen; it could be tomorrow or ten-thousand years from now. We're not supposed to look for signs anyway. It's not worth focusing on." Usually, they trot out Mark 13:32: "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." The reasoning seems to be, "Since Jesus Himself says He doesn't know the hour, what purpose is there for us to think about it?"

This is such a sadly misguided reductivist reading of the text. If we read the entirety of Mark 13, we will see that the whole chapter is a string of signs that Jesus specifically tells us to watch for. I'm not going to parse the entire chapter, but let's look at the immediate context of Mark 13:32. Jesus was asked about the signs of the end of the age. After listing various indicators (such as persecution), He says:

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch. (Mark 13:24-37)

First, notice the lesson of the fig tree: "As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates." In this passage Jesus is specifically saying that signs manifested on the earth will give us knowledge that His coming is near. How anybody can read this passage and think we are not supposed to pay attention to signs in the world as indicator's of Christ's return is beyond me. He literally says, "There's going to be signs that will give you insight into the proximity of my return."

Only after saying this does He say that nobody knows the day or the hour. How does this fit in with what Christ said in the previous verse? In verse 31 He says to pay attention because the signs of the times will let us know when He will return, while in verse 32 He says no man knows the day nor the hour. How do these go together?

The answer is pretty simple. Just because nobody knows the precise moment when Christ will return does not mean there isn't anything we can know about it. While cautioning us that knowledge of the exact time is not possible, Jesus wants us to know that we can discern the season of His coming. That's why His parables on this question are seasonal: when we see the fig tree putting forth leaves, we know we are moving into the season of summer—and what to expect when summer comes. Similarly, we cannot know the exact day nor the hour, but through attention to the "signs of the times", we can know when it is near.

Jesus uses another seasonal-weather parable to address this same issue. In Matthew 16:2-3, He tells the Pharisees:

When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

There are two implications here:

(1) Discerning the "signs of the times" is akin to discerning the weather. You don't know exactly when the first rain drops will fall, but you know that a storm is coming "soon" when all the signs are there.

(2) The tone of Jesus's words tells us that we should be attempting to make this discernment. He seems to express surprise that His hearers are not already doing so.

To return to Mark 13, we see that Jesus's final admonition is for watchfulness. He uses an example of servants waiting for their master to return from a journey. The servants do not know exactly when the master will return, "in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow." Does that mean they should not watch because they don't know the precise moment? On the contrary, Jesus says, "Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come...And what I say to you I say to all: Watch." The fact that we do not know the exact time is an argument to pay closer attention for the Master's return. You may not know what time of night he will return, but you know He is coming and that His return is close.

Thus when we read all of Mark 13, the message that emerges is this:

The coming of Christ will be preceded by a series of signs. The signs are not specific enough to let us know the exact day or time, and speculating on such would be futile. But nevertheless, the signs will be sufficient for us to know that we are moving into the "season" of Christ's return. We are to be attentive to these things and prepare ourselves for His coming, even more so to the degree we know the "season" is near.

Sure, I get there is significant debate over what constitutes a "sign", what the signs means, and so on. But the point is this: Anyone who tells you we are not supposed to try to discern the signs of His coming is being disingenuous about what the Bible actually says.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Crises of Faith: The Operation of Grace

When I read the testimonies of those who have lost faith or had their faith severely shaken, I frequently notice these persons will mention the imperceptibility of grace as an issue. Usually commenting on the uncharity of other Catholics, they will say things like, "The operation of grace does not seem present in the Catholics I know; if we are the true Faith, shouldn't it be more noticeable?" or, "I don't see the effects of grace in their life." 

What this ultimately comes down to is people aren't as good as we expect they should be. And it's not an empty argument: The essential trait of a Christian is supposed to be that we are "Christ-like", which supposes the sanctification of the person through the working of grace. And this is not an abstract principle; it is supposed to bear fruit in all manner of tangible signs: fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), corporal works of mercy (Jas. 1:27), and the development of virtue. This is all made possible by grace. If grace is real, shouldn't we clearly notice these manifestations of it?

Furthermore, when Christians fail to respond with grace in sensitive situations, it stings. Hard. Too often Christians, who should be the most reassuring, respond with coldness or astonishing hubris. I seldom speak of my own life on here, but I want to share some of my own experiences in this regard: I am a divorced Catholic and have been so for several years. When this happened, I received virtually no support from my Catholic friends whatsoever. I'm not talking about institutional support from the Church; I don't care about that. I'm talking about Catholic friends reaching out and saying, "Hey, how are you doing?" Or saying, "Wanna go out and do something?" Nobody started a sign-up to bring me any dinners. Invitations to social events dropped off; I stopped getting invited to weddings. They quietly stopped interacting with me online. Even my kids stopped getting  invited on play dates and stuff like that. People stopped chit-chatting with me after Mass or at Sunday coffee and donuts. It's not that people were expressing outright judgment towards me; its just that they weren't...anything. It was so disappointing. I ended up having to make a whole new set of Catholic friends (by and large people I met online).

But...guess who was right there for me? My secular or non-Catholic friends were right there. They wanted to take me out for drinks to soothe my wounds. They texted me "Hey how are you feeling?" They were right there to say, "Aw shit happens man, I'm sorry." They did good to me without any expectation or sense of obligation. May God reward them.

Feeling abandoned by my Catholic social circle was devastating. I'm still kind of angry about it. And I don't understand it. Did they think that by simply being my friend through a hard time they were supporting divorce or something? If so, that's ridiculous; that would be like saying I can't visit someone in prison lest it be construed I support his crimes. I don't know. But it was extremely hurtful to see that persons who I believed ought to have been the most charitable and grace-filled were being outpaced by non-believers. It was my most painful experience with Catholics I ever had, and it wasn't with the clergy or institution, but with the rank and file schlubs in the pews who I thought were my friends. 

Shouldn't these people—who receive the Body of Christ weekly or even daily—have responded with more grace to my pain?

As I've reflected on this over the years, I've come to see it this way: people generally do the best that they can with the knowledge and gifts they have available to them. It is easy for me to say, "If you really had grace, you should have done X or Y in a given situation." But I can't evaluate a person's objective state on the spectrum of grace. Perhaps someone's behavior to me was a little off-putting; I don't know how much worse it would have been without grace. Maybe someone is a braggart and has always been a braggart for the last ten years you've known them, and despite all their communions and prayers, they are the same bragging fool as they've always been. Well, thank God they are the same bragging fool and not a worse one! That, too, is grace. Perhaps so-and-so comes to Mass dutifully every week, says little, contributes little, understands little, and makes little progress. But how do you know that simply maintaining this station does not require everything he has? Is not the meaning of the widow's mite parable that it's hard to judge the true value of a person's progress on mere externals?

Life is hard, and even with grace it is still a struggle. God knows I have let people down, too. I have had friends call me in need, and I blew them off because their need was inconvenient to me at the time. I've looked the other way. I've sinned by omission. I've been arrogant. But that doesn't mean grace hasn't been working in my life; when I look at where I've come from and where I am now, my entire life is a miracle of grace. I know I have a long way to go still, but that's just because I am a work in progress, and "it hath not yet appeared what we shall be" (1 John 3:2). But this is ultimately a journey and we are all pilgrims. If I am walking from Detroit to Los Angeles, the fact that I have not arrived at Los Angeles is no argument that I never left Detroit. A traveler must not only consider where he needs to go but how far he has come. And thus it is with grace. So, I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible for me to judge how and to what degree grace works in peoples' lives. I simply don't know where people are on their individual journeys. I rejoice when I see moments of grace, but I cannot use these moments to make any sort of judgment on a person's overall state.

And of course, it's rare for someone to become truly saintly. We know where we all want to be: fruits of the spirit, works of mercy, virtue, etc. But few people progress in the spiritual life to the point where these things become resplendent; few reach sanctity this side of heaven. Think about something like physical exercise. Of all the persons who say, "This year I'm going to get in shape this year!", how many of them do you think actually persevere in that resolution? How many of them are actually in shape by next year? The minority. Most make nominal gains, then give up. Only a few make demonstrable progress that is noticeable by others. Given that the spiritual life is compared to athletic training, requiring similar endurance and discipline, should we be surprised that so few become exceptional?

Of course, there certainly are many circumstances when grace is discernible. I mean, starting with my own life, I can discern many places where grace has worked me over the years and brought about real, substantial change. Is this the sort of change that others can easily see from the outside? Not necessarily. Again, others don't know what I struggle with, just like I don't know what others struggle with. Sometimes we have victory in one area and continue to fight elsewhere. I am infinitely more patient and loving now than I was 15 years ago. That's grace. But I also have failures, sins, and bad habits I continue to struggle with. I may be more patient now, but I am just as much of a blabbermouth as I was 15 years ago. It's grace that I am not worse. Someone may easily discern I am an inveterate blabbermouth, but they may not discern that I am more patient or loving. Thus, anyone who would presume to judge the work of grace in my life based on the former without knowledge of the latter would be horridly mistaken in their judgment. 

Similarly, when I spend the time to really talk to my Catholic friends, all of them have stories of grace to tell. And in many cases it is discernible in their life, but only after you have really gotten to know them, entered into their world, and understood where they are coming from. Grace, after all, works like a "still, small voice"; it is engendered by the Spirit, which "blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes" (1 Kings 19:12; John 3:8). It is always working. And when we complain that we don't see it, we are merely complaining that it does not work the way we think it should work, bearing the fruit we think it should bear, visible in a way we think we should see it, in the times we believe it should be seen.

Instead of looking about at the Church and saying, "Grace doesn't seem to be working in these peoples' lives", actually sit down with these people and say, "Brother, tell me a story of how grace has been working in your life", and you'll hear an astonishing tale almost every single time. It will be more interesting and edifying than whatever you assumed grace ought to be doing. After His resurrection, the disciples asked Christ, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Imagine the disappointment of those who could not let go of their own conception of what Christ's work ought to be! But for those who let go of their own expectations of what should be and instead received what Christ actually wanted to give, how rich their joy must have been!

Ultimately, we must avoid trying to judge where and how grace is working in the lives of others, and especially avoid sitting in judgment over how we think it should be working. That is a recipe for frustration and impatience with others—loss of charity, loss of hope, and ultimately loss of faith. Christ's teachings "Judge not lest ye be judged" and "Remove the plank from your own eye before removing the speck from your brother's eye" are not just platitudes to help us be nice; they are life-giving principles that keep us humble, grounded, and seeing the way God sees.  And once we see with His wisdom, the works of grace become manifest.